Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Goat Days by Benyamin, translated by Joseph Koyippally

Goat Days
Translated by Joseph Koyippally
First published 2008, I read 2012 translation
255 pages, fictional memoir

Thank you to Penguin India for providing a review copy of this book. 

When I first moved to Kerala last year, I wrote to my contact at Penguin India asking for review copies of novels written by Malayali authors, especially ones that were translated from Malayalam. I expected that reading these novels would help me to understand the culture that I was now immersed in.

In fact, the opposite happened: my experience of living in Kerala, and especially my husband’s experiences of working closely with Keralites, has made me intimately familiar with Malayali attitudes and society, even without knowing the language at all. So instead of this novel helping to understand the society, my knowledge of the society will help me to discuss the deeper social implications of this novel.

In this novel, a poor Malayali man named Najeeb gets the opportunity to go to one of the countries in the Persian Gulf – probably Saudi Arabia – to take up a relatively lucrative job. However, when he arrives he discovers that his dreams have led him to the exact opposite of what he expected: instead of a comfortable, air-conditioned flat and a job in construction, he finds himself working as a slave in the middle of the desert, herding goats, sheep, and camels, and living without even a shelter to protect him from the sun’s heat. Set in 1991, this shows the flip side of Malayali migration to the better-paying jobs on the Arabian peninsula.

Opportunities Abroad

Going to another country to make money seems like it would be a big decision that would require planning. However, Najeeb displays an astonishing lack of forethought regarding this move. In his own words,

How long have I been here, diving for a living? How about going abroad for once? Not for long. I am not greedy. Only long enough to settle a few debts. Add a room to the house. Just the usual cravings of most Malayalis…. Can one go hungry? I have, in the past. But things are different now. Now, at [my Mom]’s insistence, I am married. My wife is four months pregnant. Expenditure will now mount up like sand.
And so, in about a day, he decides to take up the opportunity – paying for a visa by scraping together or borrowing 30,000 rupees in a manner of days. This was a substantial sum of money at that time, and the fact that he can gather it in such a short period of time indicates that Najeeb is not actually that poor. He does not have to go to the Gulf for survival. So why did he go?

Going abroad was (and is) considered the thing to do in Malayali culture – for no specific reason, except that one can make a lot of money in that way. However, a substantial percentage of the people who do go abroad in this manner find themselves in slavery, like Najeeb does.

This is not helped by the fact that Najeeb and others like him do not really know anything about the position they are going to fill. When he arrives abroad, Najeeb realizes that he doesn’t even know the name of the firm where he will be working. This leaves him at the mercy of traffickers and slaveowners like the one who selects him at the airport.

Attitude towards animals

Stuck by himself in the desert, Najeeb finds himself loving the animals that he cares for. Apart from the slaveowner, he is without any human company, so he names the animals and talks to them. For example, he names the first goat that is born "Nabeel," the name he had reserved for his own son, and cares for him more carefully than for any of the others:

While the rest were fed from the common pail of milk, I made him drink separately. I fed him tender leaves of grass, making him walk by my side when the goats were taken out. Like a naughty boy, he would break away and spring ahead, and turn his head to look at me…. when I caught him, I would kiss him. For me, Nabeel was not one of the many goats in the masara. He was my own son. 

However, this does not necessarily mean that he treats them well. For example, once when he is extremely angry and frustrated, he takes it out on the animals:

I gave vent to my bitterness by taking it out on goats in the masara – by squashing the balls of the newborn males, jabbing at the udders of the milk-goats with my staff, and shoving sticks up the ass of the sheep.

There are also indications that he may have raped some of the female goats when the urge came upon him.

This depiction of extreme violence towards animals, even by a man who ostensibly loves them, strikes a chord with my experience in Kerala. In the village where we live, most families own pets, usually a dog or a cat. We had adopted a stray dog, Torpedo: took him in, fed him, gave him a collar, and trained him to walk with us. Despite the fact that he had a collar and was never aggressive towards anyone, people in the village constantly abused him. My husband and I saw people throw stones at Torpedo, beat him with sticks, and kick him while riding past on bicycles. He would constantly come home with cuts or other injuries, some from other dogs but a fair amount probably caused by people. This was not unique to Torpedo, but is the common way to treat dogs here. Abuse of animals seems to be fairly common in Keralite society, even among people who have an animal themselves.

In conclusion

This novel is a good depiction of Malayali society, especially in terms of planning and the treatment of animals. There are other things I could have mentioned: patriarchy and the treatment of women, for example, which is particularly well demonstrated by Najeeb’s brief conversation with his wife when he calls her after 3 years.

If you want to know about Malayali society or about the slave conditions that some people encounter in the Gulf, you can read this novel. Otherwise I don’t think it’s particularly worth reading.  

Watch this video from the International Labour Organization about modern-day slavery

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  1. The Malayali obsession with the "Gulf" is well known, so it's not surprising that there is a book about it. But some of this, especially the animal abuse sounds perfectly horrifying!

    1. Also, I'm so sorry about what keeps happening to Torpedo. ��

    2. Happened. He died about a month ago. :'(